Monday, 5 February 2018

The Theatre of Radio - Milk the Moment


I’m always popping in to my friendly local EE shop to change tariffs or buy yet another Apple device.  The other day, the skinny semi-bearded assistant in his polo shirt popped off to get my latest shiny grey iPad from the stockroom – before returning and sliding it gently out its tight-fitting white box.

Such is the vacuum inside the packaging that it takes some time to divorce the box lid from its bottom.  Seven seconds apparently - according to the training my obliging EE assistant had been subjected to. 

Canny Apple know that unwrapping a new gadget is a hugely exciting part of your investment – and they want to make the most of the moment -with a dramatic pause.

Great radio is often about theatre. Creating memorable moments. 

You may be on air every day for years, but when you catch up with casual listeners, they’ll still talk about THAT one crazy call from three months ago.  Their recollection is vivid. They can paraphrase the whole thing.

Does that mean they’ve forgotten just about everything else you’ve done of late? Probably.

Does it mean they will still remember that call in five years time? Probably.

That’s the value of theatre.

When planning a breakfast story arc, the double-beat works wonders.  The listener is led along a path to what they believe is an acceptable but predictable end. But what if it isn’t as they expect?  That’s theatre.

Radio too often throws away moments of theatre.   It's like a whole Coronation Street episode being replaced by a twenty second graphic telling us whose been married, betrayed or shot.

It took X Factor to teach many radio presenters the value of the pause before revealing the winner’s name.  The power of the pause is immense.  You are doing absolutely nothing – yet each moment of that carries huge value.

When chatting to Sue MacGregor for my Conversations series, she mentioned wryly how it had not escaped her notice that John Humphrys was always picked above her for the flagship 8.10 political interview on Radio 4's Today programme.  Putting to one side the thorny issue of women in radio for a moment, the grounds given were that there was a theatre about John’s interviews. That’s unarguable. On a good day you can lean back, fold your arms and wait for the fun to begin. The careful set up, the audible furrowed brow and then his harrumphing barbed interjection. Not just what he says, but when and how. It's about atmosphere.

In news bulletins, the slight extra pause after the most solemn story or headline injects real power.  Radio 4's wonderful Corrie Corfield reminds us: "leave a pause until it hurts", drawing on the words of one of her inspiring influences. As broadcasters, we feel obliged to fill gaps – but we should restrain ourselves, when appropriate, no matter how uncomfortable.

Over-polite interviewers fill the gap after their question when an interviewee pauses to think. 

Eddie Mair on Radio 4’s PM doesn’t feel a similar guilt.  When probing Nick Clegg on his own religious beliefs, when the theme emerged in the election campaign, Eddie didn’t flinch when Nick paused and stumbled for some time - on his way to eventually dreaming up an answer to Eddie’s gifted and simple question ‘why don’t you believe?’.  

When an interviewee pauses before an answer, it speaks volumes to the listener. Don’t take away that value by re-explaining your question.

That's a skill which should apply to every presenter on any format who uses callers or interviewees  in any way. We all know that if you wait long enough after the right question, eventually a kid will say something cute.

There was a great Radio 4 programme which illustrated the pause point by troubling to edit all the gaps from a famous Churchill speech. The impact was diminished hugely. Our Darkest Hour would have lasted a lot longer without Winston saying nothing.

When you are next doing one of those rare poignant pieces, and such moments occur occasionally in every format………pause.

On the other hand, sports commentators instinctively understand, and you can hear it even in the very first commentaries in the late 1920s, that you should speed up when there is action. The changing pace creates theatre.

When an emotional caller's voice quakes, the clever presenter asks 'are you OK to carry on?' Of course they are - and the presenter has helped to build the tension with 'will they or won't they' jeopardy - and prolonged the build to the climax.

When delivering a script, a news story, cue or travel news, you know what’s coming next. The listeners don’t. Drama can be created by the drama of the delivery. The vocal ticks, pace and pauses you’d use in natural delivery can be usefully added in to create the drama in the listeners’ mind that existed originally in the story you’re telling.  Sound as if you are discovering the story at the moment the listener also discovers it.

‘And we’re juuuuuuuust getting confirmation of the latest situation……………… Yes, the…..’ Tells the listener that you’ve only just heard an update. You might seek to cover up the drama of a last-minute change to what you’re doing – but there can be value in sharing it. 

Milk the moment.

Whatever the format. You’re about to do something. In plot and delivery - how can you make it more dramatic? More memorable? Use more theatre.




Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.







Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

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